Letters from Japan: ‘What’s Wrong With A Traditional New Year’s?’

Ask Hilary: Questions From Readers Answered

By Hilary Keyes
December 24, 2021
Ask Hilary

Savvy Tokyo's resident "Love in Japan" columnist, Hilary Keyes, answers anonymous questions from readers on everything from dating in Japan to women’s health issues. Got a question you’d like to ask Hilary? Send it to askhilary@savvytokyo.com.

Dear Hilary,

Like a lot of people who come to Japan, I came for the culture. At first it was anime and manga, but after I got here I became completely obsessed with Japanese traditions – especially holidays. I celebrate everything I can, and New Year’s is no exception. I even took classes on different subjects so I wouldn’t be disrespectful. In fact, my Japanese ex and I used to go to traditional events together.

However, early this year I started dating someone new (he’s Japanese too), and about a week ago when I mentioned that I was excited to make my own osechi again. He gave me this really rude look and asked why I bothered since I’m foreign. He said that it was “weird” to want to make osechi or to go to a shrine and that I should be drinking champagne and having a “real party like normal people” do. I laughed it off, but now I feel really awkward about talking about anything related to end-of-the-year plans with him.

He’s already started talking about what we’re doing for Christmas, which oddly enough, in his mind is a totally Japanese style date, but now I’m not so sure I want to do that, or anything with him to be honest. I’ve been using work as an excuse not to see him at the moment because I really can’t figure out what his issue is. What do you think?

– Akeome

Dear Akeome,

Wow! Before I get into your message, I just want to say how impressed I am that you make your own osechi, or traditional Japanese New Year’s foods. I’ve only ever attempted it once but I’m pretty sure toshi-koshi soba is my limit.

You seem to disagree with what your boyfriend is saying, which is entirely understandable. I’m curious as to why he feels it’s so strange for you to celebrate a traditional Japanese New Year’s though. The whole “why bother since you’re foreign” in particular stands out to me.

First things first: have you taken part in, celebrated, or otherwise shown an understanding of or appreciation for Japanese traditions thus far in your relationship? Did he make any comments, positive or negative about that? Did he join in or did he refuse to take part?

If so and the comments were positive and/or he took part as well, then it could be that he has a problem with New Year’s specifically. It’s the end of the year, people are stressed out at work, there can be a lot of pressure to make things a certain way for family’s sake and so on. It can also be a depressing or difficult time of year. For example, an acquaintance of mine lost several family members around the New Year, and as such doesn’t celebrate it in the traditional fashion. Another friend is estranged from their family and goes out to parties instead.

It’s the end of the year, people are stressed out at work…

It could also just be osechi itself that is the issue – I know at least four Japanese people that absolutely hate the stuff and would rather eat anything else. Or your boyfriend might simply prefer a Western-style New Year’s bash to a Japanese one and be struggling to explain this sentiment to you.

On the other hand, if your boyfriend is chronically negative or put-off by your appreciation of Japanese culture, his comment could be symptomatic of a different problem with your relationship. If he, for example, takes issue with you wearing a yukata/kimono, visiting temples and shrines, or even something as small as using chopsticks, then he might be gatekeeping his culture or trying to keep you foreign for his own purposes.

Does he mock or put down Japanese culture? Or is your appreciation of Japanese culture a common complaint of his? I might start to question why he’s dating you if that’s the case. He may not be dating you for you so much as dating you because you’re not Japanese.

It’s not that uncommon for some Japanese men (across all age groups) to have a foreign fetish as it were and to use dating someone non-Japanese to make themselves feel better, or even elevate their social or career status. Some do as it gives them the appearance of being worldly or even capable of speaking another language, when in fact they cannot.

He may not be dating you for you so much as dating you because you’re not Japanese.

They see dating a foreigner as a stepping stone to better things, be that half-children, an “automatic” visa enabling them to live overseas, or “free” accommodations if they travel to their partner’s home country. Basically dating a foreigner is a relationship full of perks for them.

While they tend to come in a variety of types, the overall trend among this kind of man is a loathing or self-deprecating view of their own culture as being somehow “less than” that of Western culture. That manifests in certain expectations of non-Japanese peoplenamely that they don’t take part in Japanese traditions. Some might even prefer their non-Japanese partners to actively mock those traditions along with them.

“Sometimes Japanese guys who are obsessed with foreigners, especially white ones, have hang-ups about being Japanese. They want to be seen as this cool exotic Japanese but global kind of guy. But if their partner knows more about their culture than they do, they start feeling insecure about themselves. They realize they aren’t special and probably not what their partner is looking for because they don’t know their own culture, and act defensively. They’re willing to bully their partner away from Japanese culture in order to maintain that foreignness they covet.” (Japanese man, 42).

While not exactly the nicest of routes to take, if your boyfriend thinks it’s “weird” for you to have a Japanese-style New Year’s then I might tell him that you would prefer to celebrate Christmas “like a foreigner”. As in no KFC and no strawberry shortcake or sexy Santa costumes that seem to form the basis of many Japanese Christmas fantasies.

They’re willing to bully their partner away from Japanese culture in order to maintain that foreignness they covet.

Having a clear discussion about why he feels that way about your making osechi should settle the matter clearly. He either dislikes Japanese New Year’s for his own reasons or, if he’s chronically against your taking part in Japanese culture, you and he simply have values that don’t match up.

If that turns out to be the case, then perhaps you should reconsider the relationship as you obviously have invested time, energy and money into studying them and don’t want to give that up. Best of luck.


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